How to Be the Team Leader You Wish You Had Starting Out

George Dickson
March 16, 2016
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Not all people placed in management and leadership positions belong there.

Most of us have had a bad manager, and in most cases, those bad managers weren't actually aiming for mediocrity or worse. Most likely, they didn't have the tools or the methodologies they needed to succeed, but they kept going anyway. That's not you though, right? 

It might be.

Excelling in your profession is great, but sometimes you excel a little too much and get put in charge of a team you weren't ready to lead.

From startup founders to engineering leads, sales managers, and shift managers, a number of people who are placed in leadership positions unprepared. You might know some, or even be one of those people.

So now what?

You have a few choices. You can be one of the bosses you remember less than fondly from the past, or you can work to become the team leader you wish you had years ago.

There are a few keys to achieving that goal. If given some genuine effort, they'll pay massive dividends.

Don't be afraid of not knowing


The only thing worse than being lost is being lost and getting bad directions.

It's alright not to know the answer to a question as long as you're willing to learn the answer. The best managers and team leaders have an undying thirst for knowledge, and a desire to share it.

However, people commonly run into trouble when they're under the assumption that as a leader they must know or have an immediate answer to everything. You might not, and that's okay.

It's even good sometimes.

Take each question you're asked that you don't know the answer to as an opportunity to expand your knowledge of a subject. It's impossible to know everything about anything, but having an intimate grasp of your area of expertise is an attainable goal. A question you're asked that you don't have an answer for doesn't need to be a scramble; it's simply another opportunity to improve your expertise.

Prioritize learning, both for you and your teammates. Your team and their own expertise are an extraordinary source of strength.

You don't need to know everything about management or leadership either. In fact, you shouldn't. If you think you do, you're wrong, and you're probably one of those past managers you didn't care much for.

There are countless resources to acquire both the techniques and tools you'll need for leadership and management. Google's re:Work project has an extensive, inclusive, and well-designed curriculum.

Uplift those around you

Great leaders don't oppress those they lead; they elevate and uplift them.

Andy Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College, explains the results of a seven year global study across a wide variety of organizations:

The research found that the best-performing organizations:

  • Promote an inspiring dream that connects to a remarkable future and the best of your past
  • Learn from others to forge a unique creative path
  • Collaborate with competitors
  • Pull people rather than pushing them
  • Connect good data with good judgment

Each of these attributes can be applied to your leadership and management style. Because each organization is unique, it's up to you to determine how these elements will fit.

Always make time for others

make time

You don't need to drop everything and be on call and available all hours of the day, but your team does need to know you're available to them as a resource.

Time and availability are some of those all-important intersections between leadership and management.

Great management is the key to being available as a leader. If you're allocating your time and bandwidth resources effectively, you'll have the time and energy you need to share with your team. 

Many of the world's greatest chefs and restaurateurs are able to run more than one exceptional restaurant because they're not just brilliant artists, they're often brilliant managers and team leaders. They're skillful delegators, talent sourcers, and system designers. They build a well-oiled machine that they can step away from without anxiety.

If you're experiencing an increase in your daily responsibilities and a drop in the frequency of face-to-face contact with your team, consider holding regular office hours.

There's no need to take this literally and make it a matter of hours — just keep a regularly scheduled time slot, and don't violate it. You'll be able to anticipate and plan around, and your teammates will know there's always a time they can reach you with important questions or issues, or simply to catch up.

Consult your peers

Team Mentorship Meeting

Mentorship in your area of expertise is a valuable service you can provide for your team, but it's equally valuable to seek out your own leadership mentors. 

Remember: you're not the first one to try to work this out.

It's never a bad idea to ask other people in leadership positions how they've gained the respect and admiration of their peers. Take someone out for coffee or lunch, and soak up some leadership tips and insights you might not encounter otherwise.

It's also crucial to remember that others on your team work with you, not under you. They're a vital source of information on how you can develop and improve your leadership and management skills.

Ask your teammates how can you can be of more service to them, and how you can facilitate the work they're doing more effectively. Because they're working closest to the issue, there's a good chance they'll provide some unique and much-needed insight. Just stay open to the possibility that you can always do what you're doing better, and try to keep from reacting defensively if you hear something unexpected.

If nothing else, you'll be expressing your interest in improving their day-to-day experience in your organization, and that kind of open, positive dialogue is priceless in building trust and goodwill.

Stay true to yourself

There's a common expectation that once someone is placed in a leadership position, they'll change. They're no longer a trusted colleague; they're a boss.

That doesn't have to be you.

Providing a sturdy foundation is crucial in numerous aspects of leadership, and this is no different. Although personal growth and evolution are imperatives as a leader, it's equally important to stay true to yourself and your team — after all, there's a pretty good chance that's what got you where you are in the first place.

In conclusion

Alan O'Rourke, VP of Growth at OnePageCRM, put it well in a LinkedIn pulse article he published on this subject:

You may have been promoted to a managerial position and are a 'boss' now, but this doesn’t automatically make you a leader.

Leadership demands a different perspective. It requires more from you than simply being a boss, but it's infinitely more rewarding.

Now that you're wearing those shoes, it's time to live up to and even surpass the expectations of your team.

It's time to be the team leader you wish you had starting out.


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